After the Deluge

Since the Flood of 93, Chesterfield boosters have used millions in public money to raise a levee and turn the bottomlands into a boomtown. But betting against the river is risky business.

Old-timers still call it Gumbo. It's a place where water and land mingle. The mingling yields the thick, dark muck that gave the place its name. After a hard rain, ponds form out on the flats, and even when the sun is beating down on the parched earth, groundwater can be found not far below the surface. Silt from the Missouri River runs deep here, up to 95 feet. It was the rich alluvial deposits that first drew German settlers to the area in the late 19th century. They cleared the bottoms of cottonwoods and sycamores and planted their crops. After World War II, farmers organized a levee district to protect their fields from the constant threat of floods.

The village of Gumbo, at the crossroads of what are now Chesterfield Airport and Long roads, never consisted of much more than a roadhouse and a general store. By the early 1960s, a few small businesses had sprouted up in the vicinity. The state widened Highway 40 to four lanes, and St. Louis County built a jail and bought the nearby airport. Even with subsequent improvements to the levee, however, much of the valley remained rural because it was vulnerable to periodic flooding.

In contrast, thousands of acres on top of the hill to the east have been devoured by subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks over the last 30 years. In 1988, Gumbo itself became part of the sprawling new city of Chesterfield, a municipality that viewed the area as fertile ground for commercial growth. But in the summer of 1993, before the town's civic and business leaders could exploit their newly acquired holdings, disaster struck.

Floodwaters from the Missouri River punched an 1,800-foot hole in the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee. Within hours, 4,400 acres had been swallowed up. When the river finally crested, days later, water had spread across the floodplain, up to 10 feet deep, engulfing Highway 40 and Spirit of St. Louis Airport. Damage estimates ranged from $250 million to more than $500 million.

The roiling waters have long since receded into memory, and traces of the devastation have disappeared, replaced by a surreal landscape.

Nowadays, traffic on the highway can back up for almost five miles, from the Missouri River to the foot of the hill below Chesterfield Mall. The slow pace allows drivers to examine their options. They can seek a respite at the new Hilton Garden Inn or shop till they drop at Chesterfield Commons, where Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Best Buy, Lowe's Home Improvement Center and several other big-box stores squat on the south side of the highway like a carnival midway.

In the past three years, business has boomed in Gumbo. Besides the Commons, there's Chesterfield Corporate Park, Chesterfield Town Centre and a slew of other projects in the offing. As a consequence, property that couldn't be given away in the wake of the Flood of '93 now commands a premium price.

Turning a floodplain into a commercial bonanza does not come without great cost. In this case, $72.5 million in tax money has been dedicated to the effort by Chesterfield. The city is also diligently working to have the federal government provide as much as $58 million for the task. Backers of this grand scheme include local politicians and businessmen, who shrewdly realized that rebuilding the levee at public expense was integral to the success of their venture.

In addition to the use of public money to support private enterprise, there are a couple of other questionable aspects to this monumental effort. For one, state and federal regulatory officials warn there is no guarantee that the Missouri River won't flood the area again, even with the beefed-up levee. If the levee does hold up, they say, it will only push the floodwaters elsewhere, most likely across the river to St. Charles County.

None of Chesterfield's business and civic leaders seriously considered where floodwaters would go; they're more concerned about flooding dampening the valley's economic joyride. With so much money at stake, they never thought twice about defying nature.

Before the ground dried in late 1993, planning had begun. Making repairs and improvements to the existing levee, as required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, became the focus of the initial recovery effort. But Chesterfield and St. Louis County officials quickly decided that the levee needed to be raised far beyond those standards to sufficiently protect private investment in the floodplain. They had only to look a few miles downstream for guidance and inspiration: successful developments at Riverport and Earth City -- which were protected by higher levees -- remained bone-dry during the deluge.

At this early stage, too, it became evident that local government was taking its cues from the business community. Indeed, in some ways, private interests were charged with setting public policy. Then-Chesterfield Mayor Jack Leonard appointed a 20-member task force, including local businessmen, to look into rebuilding the Chesterfield Valley. Within a month, the group had identified key goals and funding sources. By November 1993, St. Louis County had published its own recommendations, which essentially echoed those of Chesterfield and its business community. The county advisory group was also stacked with representatives from the real-estate, banking and development fields.

No discord existed among members of the two groups. Everybody favored maximizing floodplain development. To accomplish their unified goal, though, the task-force members had to figure out a way to finance the rebuilding of the levee and receive federal assistance without being encumbered by federal environmental laws and guidelines. They came up with an ingenious approach.

The foreword of the 1993 county report states that Chesterfield was leaning toward local financing to kick-start the project. A cost-benefit analysis, which was folded into the report, projected that reconstruction of the levee would require $16 million to $25 million but would ultimately generate more than $2 billion in "private, job-related investment." If Chesterfield waited for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to authorize a federal project, the report noted, seven to 10 years might elapse before such a plan received congressional approval. "The time to act is now!" the report urged. "Chesterfield Valley needs to seize the initiative and take immediate steps toward regaining a positive image in the market place." The report recommended that the city take a fast-track approach that would avoid delays associated with the federal regulatory process. Such an expedited approach would carry an additional advantage -- the cost of the project could be significantly reduced because the levee would not need to comply with the Corps' rigid specifications.

Circumventing the federal rules didn't mean foregoing federal funding, however. "It may be possible to obtain congressional appropriations for partial reimbursement of the cost for a private levee, under certain circumstances," the report concluded. "This possibility will be enhanced if congressional authorization can be obtained." The county and city plans outlined an ambitious redevelopment program, including the allocation of $68 million in new infrastructure improvements. An estimated $25 million of that money would be needed to raise the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee. At this early date, both ad hoc committees recommended using tax-increment financing (TIF) to fund the infrastructure improvements.

The Chesterfield City Council wasted no time, establishing a TIF district in the valley by October 1994. Under the state TIF statute, a municipality can blight an area and then designate it a redevelopment district. This allows the city to issue bonds to pay for necessary improvements. The debt is then amortized -- for up to 23 years -- by earmarking half the increases in applicable sales and property taxes generated by the new development.

A law originally intended to aid economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods was invoked to help develop one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the region. Chesterfield's $72.5 million TIF scheme pays for most of the levee and road improvements that have lured developers to the area. More than $11 million in TIF funds has already been spent by Chesterfield to build the Boone's Crossing interchange, which provides shoppers easy access to more than 4,000 free parking spaces at Chesterfield Commons.

As part of the deal, Chesterfield has signed a complicated intergovernmental agreement with the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee District, which so far has resulted in the city's allocating about $28 million to improve the levee and build an internal drainage system in the valley. With about half of the flood-protection work completed, the levee district and the city are now wagering that the project will ultimately be approved by the Corps and therefore receive federal funding. The Corps gave its tentative approval in August, and Congress is expected to make a final decision before the end of the year.

In essence, the TIF funnels property- and sales-tax dollars back to the levee district, which represents the landowners in the valley. The money is then used by the district to build a higher levee. Building a higher levee prompts renewed investment in valley real estate, and property values jump. The Corps then uses the increased property values to justify federal subsidization. The federal money cuts down the local cost. It's the proverbial "win-win" situation, reserved for those savvy enough to know how to work the system.

In this case, the Chesterfield Community Development Corp. (CCDC), the city's economic-development agency, oversees the valley's TIF district. Indeed, the government authorities vested in the two entities are so intertwined that it's hard to tell them apart. CCDC has a 12-member board of directors, half of whom also sit on the six-member TIF commission.

Rudy Stinnett, a Chesterfield real-estate broker and TIF commissioner, says the commission is acting out of civic responsibility and duty. "We look at it from a local standpoint," says Stinnett. "I think the way we used the TIF was a proper way to do it. I believe it's been put to a good use, and good things are happening in the valley, and it's going to help a lot of people. We did it mainly to broaden our economic tax base for the city. The key to it was getting the levee rebuilt and recertified, which we did. That made developers want to come to the valley."

In addition to sitting on the TIF Commission, Stinnett belongs to Chesterfield Civic Progress, a business organization. He also sells real estate for Gundaker Realty, the developer of Chesterfield Town Centre and Chesterfield Business Park. The cost of those two valley projects is estimated to be more than $100 million. William Devers, a vice president of Gundaker, also belongs to Chesterfield Civic Progress and another influential business group, the Chesterfield Valley 2000 Coalition.

As for the composition of the TIF commission, Stinnett says: "We have people from all walks of life -- CPAs, businessmen, marketing people. We select them on that basis so that we have a well-rounded economic-development authority."

The "well-rounded" TIF commission, in turn, coordinates its efforts with the five-member board of supervisors of the privately controlled Monarch-Chesterfield Levee District. If anything, the levee-district supervisors are more devoted to building up the levee and promoting development in the valley than the TIF commissioners. After all, it's their property values that hang in the balance. Henry Dubinsky, a valley businessman and vice president of the 2000 Coalition, sits on the levee-district board with William Kirchoff and Walter Graeler, both of whom sell real estate.

Another key figure is Richard "Dick" Hrabko, a former Chesterfield city councilman and longtime director of the St. Louis County-owned Spirit of St. Louis Airport. The airport owns 1,500 acres, which makes it the largest landowner in the valley. Before the flood hit, in June 1993, Hrabko and his fellow councilmen appropriated $400,000 to study the possibility of development in the valley. The city then estimated that the valley had room for an additional 20 million square feet of commercial property, which would generate an estimated $1 billion in construction. As councilman, Hrabko lauded the plan, saying the future of Chesterfield's tax base hinged on development in the valley. As airport director, Hrabko now says it's a matter of public need.

"From a transportation standpoint, the levee being raised is very, very important to the national air-space system and to the interstate-highway system in the metropolitan area," Hrabko says.

Although Chesterfield businessmen knew how to operate locally to get TIF money, they lacked influence with the Corps or in Congress. They realized they needed an inside man: Somebody who knew the players. Somebody who spoke the arcane languages of engineering and Washington politics. Somebody they could put on the public payroll. They didn't have to look too far. They found one of Chesterfield's most prominent residents, retired Col. Leon McKinney, former commander of the Corps' operations in the region, and the CCDC promptly hired him. He was their man: a career military officer with an impeccable service record; a West Point graduate, class of '55; a soldier whose picture hangs on the wall at the Corps' downtown headquarters in the company of other officers and gentlemen.

Chesterfield couldn't buy better advice. McKinney's career experience provides him with unparalleled insight into the Corps' bureaucracy, and years as a staff member for the Senate Appropriations Committee had given him an understanding of how Congress handles water-resource issues. His local involvement dates back to shortly after the 1993 flood, when some Chesterfield businessmen formed a group called the Phoenix Forum. "I've been working with them ever since," McKinney says.

And the city of Chesterfield has been paying him ever since, too. For the last seven years, the City Council has routinely renewed McKinney's semiannual consulting contract, and the CCDC pays him $3,500 a month -- more than $250,000 so far. McKinney's contract stipulates that he work with the levee district and coordinate his activities with the Chesterfield Valley 2000 Coalition, the private business group that succeeded the Phoenix Forum.

To the retired Army officer's thinking, everyone involved in the development of the floodplain deserves accolades. "It's been almost a textbook example of how our government is supposed to work," McKinney says. "You have the initiative starting at the private level. People have a problem, and they let their elected officials know at the local level. They raise their own money to do things. They get county government involved because they have an airport."

Then they need the federal government to reimburse some of that "local" money. The city has applied for more than $16 million in federal credits through the Corps for work already completed. If approved, that money will pay for most of the local cost-share. Under the federal formula, local sponsors are responsible for 35 percent of the total costs.

McKinney's role blurs the line between public and private interests: The city pays him to do consulting work for the landowners who are members of the levee district. If he gets the Corps to sanction the levee-raising and the project receives federal funding, these private interests are spared the expense of paying for their own flood protection.

Land prices in Chesterfield are already among the highest in the metropolitan area, having increased by a staggering 34 percent between 1992 and 1999, according to CCDC estimates. But assessed property values in the Chesterfield Valley have more than tripled since the flood. In January 1994, a little more than four months after the levee was breached, the cumulative assessed value of the valley property had decreased by almost 50 percent to $18 million. This year, it is estimated at $65 million.

The Corps plugged the property-value increases into its cost-benefit analysis to justify raising the levee.

To Kelley Isherwood, a retired banker and member of the Sierra Club, this is specious reasoning. "They've been allowing the development to take place, which then gives them the justification for building the levee to protect that development. It's the cart before the horse," Isherwood says. After the flood, there was a freeze on development in Chesterfield Valley, pending the completion of a flood-flow-frequency study by the Corps' researchers. But the Corps lifted the moratorium before the research could be completed and recertified the levee as safe in 1997. This move made flood insurance available again through FEMA. "(During) this whole period, they've been developing in that floodplain," Isherwood says. "All this development opened up before the (Corps') draft feasibility study was even in existence."

There was no way the TIF commission was going to wait for a feasibility study to be finalized before it acted. Allan Sheppard, a former Chesterfield councilman, recalls when James Mello, the attorney for the CCDC and TIF commission, made a surprise appearance at a City Council meeting back in 1997. "He came at the invitation of the mayor, Nancy Greenwood, and spoke about what he called "TIF 101,' without it being on the agenda," says Sheppard. "Much to my chagrin, it helped to push it through, when I, for one, and others didn't want to see us subsidize the development of the Chesterfield floodplain."

Sheppard continues to question the efficacy of building up the levee to protect retail developments with the help of taxpayer dollars. "We need to use the free-market system down there rather than government subsidies," he says. "It's an absolutely stupid thing to do. This is a hydraulic engineer's pot of gold. It's the next best thing to moving the Gulf of Mexico somewhere else. They're building a hydraulic house of cards down there. The government should be smart enough to know that if something really goes wrong down there, the Wal-Marts and the rest of these folks, the Hiltons, they'll just write it off their taxes and just move on. They'll just leave skeletons down there and cut their losses."

Chesterfield Mayor Nancy Greenwood sees the development issue as a calculated risk taken by private investors. "Property owners have the right to sell their land, and people have the right to do with it what they want, as long as it falls within our zoning (ordinance). People who are building down there know that that is a floodplain. They know that this levee is going in," Greenwood says. "They feel confident of the protection that is there now. But there are no guarantees in life that I know of."

One guarantee the city made good on was its pledge to the businessmen. "Right after the flood, the City Council made a commitment to the owners of the businesses that had been there," says Greenwood. "So we have followed through with that policy. There are levees being built all over this country, not just in Chesterfield, to protect those areas where there are people with jobs and businesses. You have the same thing in the city of St. Louis."

The development that has taken place in the Chesterfield Valley within a few short years has required rearranging of the landscape on an unprecedented scale. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that before the 1993 flood, more than 300 acres of wetlands remained on the landward side of the levee. But the Corps whittled away at those acres by repeatedly issuing permits under the Clean Water Act, allowing the wetlands to be filled in for development. The coup de grace came in late 1996, when the Corps issued the city of Chesterfield a blanket permit to destroy the last 68 acres of wetlands to accommodate developers.

The taking of the wetlands shows how the city, the levee district and the developers worked together to achieve their common goal.

Raising the levee requires millions of cubic yards of soil. To meet the demand, the levee district purchased 318 acres north of Highway 40, adjacent to the U.S. Ice Sports Complex. The district also agreed to buy dirt from private landowners to meet its needs. One way to view this might be that the levee district and the landowners who belong to it are acquiring dirt for $3.50-$4 a cubic yard from themselves. The city has already applied to the Corps to be paid back up to 65 percent of the cost, which amounts to more than $8.6 million.

Dredging on the levee district's land north of Highway 40 has turned the property into wasteland, but the plan is to eventually convert this "borrow site" into a manmade wetlands area and deed the property over to the city. This will satisfy the Corps' rule requiring wetland losses be mitigated. The city, which holds the blanket permit, is allowing developers who bulldoze wetlands to buy into its future wetlands-park site for $25,000 an acre, a small price to pay to avoid direct federal supervision.

Mike Geisel, director of the Chesterfield Public Works Department, says forming the wetlands-mitigation bank in cooperation with the levee district and the developers will be a vast improvement on the original wetlands, which were fragmented. "Rather than have each individual property owner go to the Corps and try to address the wetland issues related to an individual parcel down there, we took (control of) the 4,500-acre tract," says Geisel. "I think it was just a great deal of forward thinking to be ahead of the curve and deal with this as we did."

Michael Doster, a Chesterfield-based zoning attorney, agrees. "To me, it's been a great example of cooperation between business, government and the residents," says Doster. "Does it have its problems? Sure. But why people can't stand back and say this is a great story to be told is beyond me. I guess there's always going to be people who want to pick at it and be naysayers. But to me, it's a wonderful story of recreating and moving forward. Trying to cast development in a negative light is something that the media does."

Doster, a former Chesterfield municipal judge, represents major developers in Chesterfield, including THF Realty (developer of Chesterfield Commons) and the Old Smoke House Investment Group (developer of Chesterfield Grove).

For those who have profited, the transformation of the valley is an exemplary model of public and private partnership, but these same economic visionaries have paid little attention to the potential long-term dangers of building in the floodplain. The levee-raising, a prerequisite to the economic boom, has drawn a chorus of protests from other agencies.

Government officials fault the project as shortsighted at best. In a worst-case scenario, they say, it could lead to a catastrophe. At least three agencies have voiced concerns about the Corps' recommendation to raise the levee to more than 500-year levels of protection. They generally agree that the levee is sufficient at its current height, which protects against a so-called 100-year flood event. Flood-protection levels are based on theoretical estimates. A 500-year levee is projected to have a 1-in-500 chance of being topped in any given year, whereas a 100-year levee's odds are estimated to be one in 100.

"Obviously when a levee is built like that and certified per the Corps' standards, there's a false sense of security that people living behind the levee are protected," says Bob Bissell, chief of the mitigation division with FEMA in Kansas City. "However, as you saw in '93, that security literally washed away, and there was a lot of damage behind the levee. So even though our regulations allow that kind of development, we don't really support it.

"We support a more conservative flood-mitigation effort, which would be to simply not build there."

Col. Michael Morrow, the Corps' district engineer for the St. Louis region, isn't focused on the big picture. Instead, his concerns are limited to the letter of the law. "Anybody can build anything they want, as long as it's not in an area that we control such as a wetland," Morrow says. When asked whether he feels it is prudent to develop an area that floods, the colonel demurs: "I think you're raising a question that's a lot larger and above our pay grades."

The state of Missouri doesn't buy Morrow's explanation. In a letter to Morrow dated Sept. 18, Stephen Mahfood, the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR), charged the Corps with circumventing the federal regulatory process and asserted that the Corps published its feasibility report and environmental impact statement after the levee district "completed construction of a substantial portion" of the levee. "As a result, this National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document is being accomplished after the fact, rather than in advance of a proposed project, as is customary." The DNR director complained that "the requisite "no action' alternative is, in this circumstance, rendered somewhat meaningless," because the levee district intends to build the levee with or without federal authorization. "If the ... levee is going to be developed regardless of the Corps' involvement, then it should be built as a cost to the beneficiaries, not to the public," according to Mahfood.

"I understand the state's position," says Morrow. "But if there's no federal project, it's Congress that really makes the final decision. The question is, if they can afford it, why go federal? I guess that depends. Congress is the one that authorized us to look at this, to do the initial study, to do the feasibility study. And, again, Congress answers to their constituents. The question of whether or not they can afford it, I don't know." Morrow says that the larger issues of watershed management have not been addressed by Congress, either.

The DNR letter from Mahfood warns that raising the levee will not only spur development of the floodplain but also inevitably cause flooding elsewhere. "The DNR has direct property interests in the area directly across the river in St. Charles County in the form of the Katy Trail State Park," Mahfood wrote. "We recommend that additional work and study be accomplished before finalization of this environmental impact statement in order to more precisely delineate the extent of induced flooding that will result."

In an interview, Mahfood expands on the DNR's position: "We feel like there will be additional flooding to the Katy Trail. How much? That's what we don't know. We want it analyzed. We feel like you need some answers to some of these questions before you can make decisions about not just this levee but any levee. Using good floodplain management makes everybody sit down and recognize that the river is a system and that it's not just water flowing past a certain point. We know that flood-control projects like this usually reduce the frequency of flood damage but not the inevitability of it. That's the thing that worries me: People think these levees are going to protect them in all circumstances, and that's just not the truth."

Rick Hansen of Columbia, Mo., an agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, compares the Corps' operations to that of the state highway department. "You build highways, and people will come and they will develop the area," he says. "If you channelize the river, if you build levees, if you repair levees, if you continue to make floodplains accessible for development, people will come. This isn't just the Monarch-Chesterfield. Many projects that the Corps of Engineers has done on the Missouri River have encouraged people to encroach on the floodplain. We feel the real problem with the Corps is they never evaluate cumulatively what they do in all of their projects. To me, they all kind of tie together."

A hydrology analysis prepared by the Corps in 1995 said a new 500-year levee in Chesterfield would raise flood levels by 3.4 feet upstream from the Highway 40 bridge. Under FEMA regulations, projected increases of more than a foot require that all development along the river cease. Using newer hydrological data gathered since the 1993 flood, the Corps came up with a more favorable estimate that placed the increase at only 0.8 feet. But with knowledge of the entire watershed still incomplete, the overall projections remain as unclear as the waters of the Missouri River.

Meanwhile, the Wildlife Service is adamant in its assertion that the levee will compound the flooding problems on the lower Missouri River. In its response to the Corps draft feasibility report, the agency summarizes the dangerous buildup that is taking place:

"There are already 500-year levees protecting the Riverport and Earth City areas downstream of the proposed project. The Howard Bend Levee District, immediately downstream, is also proposing a 500-year protection levee. We understand that the city of Hazelwood is investigating a 500-year protection levee on the downstream side of the Highway 370 bridge.... There is a potential that upwards of 25 miles of floodplain land may be protected in St. Louis County alone. Coupled with the construction of Page Avenue (bridge), the various floodplain projects likely would contribute to a serious bottleneck in flood flow conveyance in this portion of the Missouri River floodplain. The combined effects of these projects will increase flood elevations, decrease flood storage capacity and adversely impact riparian and aquatic habitats through the continued escalation of structural measures to repair or mitigate the effects of more frequent, higher energy and more destructive flood events."

In other words, the development of floodplains in St. Louis County is responsible for the loss of wildlife habitat and will inevitably cause flooding elsewhere.

The same warnings have been sounded before but not heeded. In the wake of the 1993 flood, the Clinton administration formed an interagency committee to study the disaster. Brig. Gen. Gerald E. Galloway, a retired Corps officer, headed the group, which included officials from numerous government agencies. Their work culminated in the publication of a five-volume report in June 1994. The study found that "activities in the floodplain, even with levee protection, continue to remain at risk." Perhaps more important, the report concludes that levees themselves "can cause problems in some critical reaches by backing water up on the other levees or lowlands."

Although the Galloway Report, as it came to be known, refrained from calling for a total ban on floodplain development, it did suggest that flood protection be approached more systemically. The Corps, however, has chosen to take the opposite tack.

After the 1993 flood disaster, the Corps' Kansas City headquarters placed a moratorium on floodplain developments, strictly prohibiting any construction without an environmental assessment. But after the Corps' St. Louis office assumed jurisdiction over the lower Missouri River in 1995, the agency reversed its position. By no small coincidence, U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, whose district includes Chesterfield, has lobbied hard for the Corps to recommend the federal financing of the levee-raising. Talent, a Chesterfield resident and consistent booster of development in the valley, has received ample campaign contributions from Chesterfield businessmen, including support for his failed 2000 gubernatorial bid. (During Talent's Congressional run in 1998, he got $9,000 from Thom Sehnert, who owns the Smoke House Market and Annie Gunn's restaurant in the valley and is a partner in the development of Chesterfield Grove.)

Once the Corps lifted the ban on building in the floodplain, the construction craze began. The Galloway Report specifically warned against such "uncoordinated and conflicting" rules, which, the report said, "have hindered efficient floodplain management." It also predicted that events such as the 1993 flood will reoccur, mainly because of encroachment on the floodplain by human activities.

Despite this knowledge, the Corps has continued to approve private levee-raisings. Ironically, the private flood-protection structures that the Corps permits often don't even meet its engineering standards. Take, for example, the improvements made to Bonhomme Creek, which received more than $1.6 million in TIF funds.

When the Missouri River floods, it backs up the small tributary, making the creek the most significant threat to interior flooding in the entire Chesterfield Valley. Not surprisingly, upgrading flood protection on the creek became a major component of Chesterfield's development plans. The levee district purchased 50,000 tons of rock from the Fred Weber quarry near Bridgeton to shore up the creek, which benefits the investors in the $20 million Chesterfield Grove project, including Sehnert.

But there was one hitch with the Bonhomme Creek project: Rip-rap used by the levee district to shore up the creek banks is considered substandard by Corps' guidelines. Some of the boulders weighed as much as 600 pounds. Within a few years, a Corps-led inspection revealed that the stones were already breaking into pieces as small as 1 inch. The levee district's engineer admitted that substandard material had been used but defended the action, saying the district had acquired larger rocks to compensate for the expected deterioration. Despite these findings, the Corps concluded that it would be too expensive to replace the rock. The Corps then routinely approved the credit application submitted by the levee district, which will likely result in the federal government's paying up to 65 percent -- more than $1 million -- for the Bonhomme Creek project.

It may have been the burrowing of moles that caused the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee to collapse in 1993, or the roots of a large tree growing near its base. Nobody really knows for sure. Some engineers speculate that sandy soil contributed to the structure's downfall, allowing seepage to penetrate and soften its landward side. Whatever the cause, pressure had been building for more than a month. As the river rose beyond flood stage, its velocity increased as well, sweeping through the bend in the Centaur Chute past Howell Island, where it rejoined the main channel.

Unlike hurricanes or tornadoes, floods are slow-moving natural disasters, and they occur irregularly. This gives emergency managers the advantage of being able to plan how to prevent losses. Prudence would dictate that floodplains remain undeveloped, but economic forces don't necessarily adhere to reason.

Neither does the river. Dennis Stephens, a hydraulic engineer for the Corps, compares the situation to a game of chance. He is the engineer who interpreted the data that led to lowering of the anticipated flood-stage increases that will result from the raising of the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee. Stephens expresses confidence in his projections, but the chance that the river will shoulder its way once more into Chesterfield Valley is something that still disturbs him.

"The probability is that it could occur," he says. "It's like winning the lottery. Somebody wins the lottery sooner or later, right?"

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